The son of famed expat journalist Alistair Cooke doffs his historical-novelist garb (South of the Border, 1989, etc.) to offer well-placed insights on the press in wartime.
Democracy is more demanding than other political arrangements, newsman Eric Sevareid once noted. It’s also more demanding to investigate events independently instead of accepting press releases and briefings at face value, as the media seemed inclined to do during the first years of the Iraq War. The nation’s founders, notes Cooke, “saw government’s inclination to suppress the rights of citizens not as occasional, or rare, but constant,” especially during wartime. Cooke highlights journalists who resisted government demands to present news as propaganda and often came under fire for doing so. (“You would think by now we could agree that dissent is not disloyal,” he writes.) Pioneering colonial printer Isaiah Thomas, for instance, happily pilloried king and Parliament throughout the years leading up to the Revolution, proclaimed victory as “an event that must affect every patriotic American with joy and pleasing sensibility,” and promptly turned his pen against a Massachusetts legislature eager to tax its new subjects. Similarly, crusading journalist Walter Lippmann ended his long career as a gadfly by enduring the considerable wrath of Lyndon Johnson, who conducted what James Reston called a “vicious vendetta” against him that ended only when Walter Cronkite joined Lippmann in denouncing troop escalations in Vietnam. Cooke makes room for discussion of contrarians on the right, such as William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick, whose free-press engagements were sometimes self-serving but sometimes admirable. The author’s more recent heroes, however, are undoubtedly liberal journalists who have stepped up to question the current administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq, among them Philip Gourevitch, Seymour Hersh, George Packer and Dana Priest.
A worthy and readable piece, especially for journalism students and those who want to be better, more critical consumers of the news.